Let’s all be grateful to the Public Theater for producing what was surely the biggest new musical of the fall whether on or off of Broadway – not just in size (26-person cast, 17-piece orchestra), but in length (3 hours) and pure artistic ambition.
But while Giant will thankfully be preserved with a cast recording and will surely receive its fair share of future regional and amateur productions, it will not, as some had originally hoped, transfer to Broadway. Its Off-Broadway run was barely even extended. And although Michael John LaChiusa’s flavorful score and the worthy cast have received praise, Michael Greif’s production has failed to garner much enthusiasm from critics or even Public Theater subscribers.
Based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 epic novel of the same name, which in turn became the classic 1956 film with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, Giant begins in the early 20th century with the unexpected union of a confident, liberal, very well-read young woman from the north with a boastful, culturally conservative, exceedingly rich Texan, which leads to her being suddenly hoisted off to the Texan’s 2.5 million-acre ranch.
Once there, she experiences a nearly tragic case of culture shock. Although she can attempt to adjust to the incredible heat and her husband’s spiteful sister, she can’t bare the rampant discrimination against Mexicans, who work as hired hands on the ranch and live in third-world quality huts on the edge of the property. The racism issue is later explored more fully when their child marries a Mexican girl against his father’s wishes.
One can’t help but compare Giant with Showboat, also based on a Ferber novel and dealing with a multigenerational saga plus issues of racism. In spite of its historical significance, Showboat is an admittedly unfocused work that has since been revised by countless directors, often with mixed results.
With its overload of plot and characters over a 30-year time span, it was inevitable that Giant, which has a book by Sybille Pearson, would turn out to be just as problematic in structure. I saw the original production of Giant, staged by Jonathan Butterall, at the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C. back in 2009, where it was presented in three acts and ran 45 minutes longer.
Personally, I don’t think Greif, who subsequently took over the project, has added very much or fixed its problems. The scenic design is now quite skimpy. And turning the entire show into a flashback is awkward, especially since much of act one is already a flashback, thus becoming a flashback within a flashback.
The exceptional cast members, including Brian d’Arcy James, Kate Baldwin, Bobby Steggert, John Dossett and Michele Pawk, can only do so much to divert our attention away from these issues.
Even so, LaChiusa’s flavorful score, which displays a variety of musical styles, is a monumental achievement. While it is perhaps a shame that none of LaChiusa’s works has achieved commercial success, that is really the result of his choosing such unusual subject matter and does not reflect his considerable talent as a post-Sondheim songwriter who takes his craft very seriously. So long as his shows continue to be produced Off-Broadway, it’s inevitable that one of his shows will eventually achieve both commercial and critical success.